Disclaimer: The black hair salon commonly referred to as the beauty shop I speak of in this post is one that is owned by a black person — woman to be more specific — and one that caters predominantly to the hair needs of black women. I use beauty shop and hair salon synonymously.
Lets keep it real, going to the beauty shop can sometimes feel like such a burden because you know you are going to be there for most of your day, and if you are getting braids, you just might want to kiss your whole life goodbye. For the new beginners, the time spent in the beauty shop n for black women ranges from the minuscule 2 hours of a wash and set (on a GOOD DAY with no waiting) to the dreadful 8+ of hair braiding depending on style. Needless to say, you know from the time you were little and your mom brought you to someone to get your hair done that its always going to be an all day process so better prepare yourself AND don’t complain. Beyond the initial wait time, and the “girl give me ten minutes (meaning 30+) to quickly finish curling her hair, the beauty shop is always full of all kinds of CHAOTIC acts and humor. People are always walking in and out, and there is always that very persistent sales person coming in to to sell real “designer” purses plus food PLUS those other “unknown products.” Of course you cannot forget the old black man who loves to come in at the same time every day to look at what he calls the “pretty young thangs” getting their hair done. And then, there is the music and the passionate dancing which happens once in a while but needless to say, is bound to happen. It goes something like this: a song will come on on the radio and everyone and I mean EVERYONE including the hair dressers will loosely drop what they are doing, join in passionately singing the wrongs cords and words, as they sway their hips and dance away.
Now, I am sure you are wondering why I am talking about this and why I think its important for me to share with others? Well, that’s because for black women, the beauty shop is just not a place you go and get your done and come out looking like a completely different person. The beauty shop for black women serves as a symbol for what it means to be a part of a community of people who although are not exactly like you, understand and relate to some of your struggles. It is a place where passions come alive, and anger is freely and outwardly expressed. When you spend so much time in the hair salon, you understand that in there conversations happen which not only require that you have a certain sense of secrecy, but they are conversations which allow you to freely share and be honest about the sometimes harsh life experiences at home (in the private) and at work (in the public). There is a certain solidarity amongst the women that come in and out of those salons that just frees up the spirit and allows you and the people around you to “straighten” up and “fix” up your lives, your homes, and your kitchens (literally and figuratively). According to statistics from Essence Magazine black women in the US spend up to 80 percent more on hair cosmetology than other women. Now, before you start thinking and acting crazy and start shouting statistics at me concerning the economic whatnots of the American black family which I already know, just keep on reading. Spending that kind of money on hair, YES might be inexcusable, BUT that money spent is not just about what it does for you as an individual but its money spent knowing that you are supporting the business of someone who serves as your hair dresser, your girlfriend, and therapist. You also spend that money knowing that its going towards keeping a community business open that allows you to have a space in which you can truly be yourself in this world. The most amazing aspect about these beauty shops is the feminist banter that goes on which allows women to self empower and gives them a space to inspire others through sharing their stories. A lot of these women are not self proclaimed feminists, but just by listening at how they talk, what they talk about, and the kind of silent activists they are, reaffirms what I have always believed which is that change happens everywhere and its not only in the classroom and at UN conferences that women are changing how we perceive ourselves and how we want the world to perceive us. bell hooks in her look Talking Back: Thinking Feminist Thinking Black so eloquently talks about the importance of the small and informal spaces in which critical consciousness can take place. She writes:
“Small groups remain an important place for education for critical consciousness for several reasons. An especially important aspect of the small group setting is the emphasis on communicating feminist thinking, feminist theory, in a manner than can be easily understood. In small groups, individuals do not need to be equally literate or literate at all because the information is primarily shared through conversation, in dialogue which is necessarily in a liberatory expression. Small groups of people coming together to engage in feminist discussion, in dialectical struggle make a space where the “personal is political” a starting point for education for critical consciousness can be e extended to include politicization of the self that focuses on creating understanding of the ways sex, race and class together determine our individual lot and our collective experience.”
So whether in be a beauty shop/ hair salon, or a the kitchen where you come together with your father, brother, mother and sisters to cook a hearty meal, facebook, or even a coffee shop talking informally with a group of friends, consciousness raising about the issues that we face in our day to day lives can happen anywhere. It is in these spaces that the most change is happening because in those settings, we perceive ourselves as members of a collective and hence are always willing to listen and evolve. With that, what is your preferred small space where you get to do your consciousness raising about the issues that invigorate you the most?
For more information on the politics of the beauty shop experience, check out the book Beauty Shop Politics: African American Women’s Activism in the Beauty Industry. I haven’t red it yet, but I’ve heard its promising:)